Westhill, Brien McMahon high schools saw 'learning gains' - not 'learning loss' - during COVID pandemic. Here's why.

Photo of Ignacio Laguarda
Westhill High School in Stamford, Conn. Monday, April 19, 2021.

Westhill High School in Stamford, Conn. Monday, April 19, 2021.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

STAMFORD — Much has been written about the “learning loss” suffered by students due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but a local nonprofit wants to highlight the “learning gains” from the unprecedented school year that recently culminated.

A new report by the educational nonprofit RISE Network — an organization designed to help address the achievement gap and improve student outcomes at 10 high schools in nine districts, including Westhill High School in Stamford and Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk — highlights some of the ways school districts responded to the pandemic.

Students dismiss from Brien McMahon High School Friday, February 26, 2021, in Norwalk, Conn.

Students dismiss from Brien McMahon High School Friday, February 26, 2021, in Norwalk, Conn.

Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Media

“Too often in education we focus on the gaps and deficiencies and in this report we were really excited to shine a light on the incredible perseverance and resilience being shown by educators, students and families,” said Emily Pallin, executive director of RISE, while acknowledging that there are still glaring needs to address. “The pandemic showed us how school communities can come together to innovate and adapt.”

Westhill is featured in the report numerous times. The school is credited with offering extra educational sessions for struggling students during the April break, as well as creating a series of virtual lunches with ninth grade students in the at-home distance learning model with Westhill Principal Michael Rinaldi, who they had never met in person.

“From the start, our partnership with CT RISE has benefited the Westhill community in multiple ways,” Rinaldi said, in a written statement. “Certainly, throughout the pandemic, our work with RISE proved to be even more beneficial in supporting our students and helping them meet with success.”

Additionally, teachers at the school held extra focus group sessions with students to better learn about the challenges they were experiencing.

“These focus groups allowed teachers to ensure they were planning with specific student concerns in mind, keeping students at the forefront of their practice,” reads the report. “This student-centered, collaborative approach led educators to discover that some hybrid students struggled to maintain a sense of structure and accountability on their at-home days.”

Westhill was also singled-out for its efforts to support seniors interested in attending a community college. The school collaborated with Brien McMahon to get information to students about the application and financial aid processes though a virtual event.

They even held a friendly competition, with the principal of the school with the fewest participants agreeing to don the other school’s gear for one day. In the end, purple and gold came out ahead with 38 Westhill seniors, compared to 20 from Brien McMahon, attending the event about Norwalk Community College.

“The first thing we were affected by (during the pandemic) was the college visits,” said Tom Stepkoski, Westhill counselor, in the RISE report. “We normally have representatives come in from September to December and they sit with students. This year we could not do that. We said ‘we are going to do virtual visits.’ That ended up working a lot better. We usually have about 100 visits each year and this year we had 150 to 175.”

The report describes how students and teachers all learned new skills during the most challenging educational year in recent memory.

“Students persevered and developed tremendous 21st century technology, time management, and organizational skills, and students learned how to navigate change and challenges,” the report reads. “Consider the adults in our school communities. Teachers mastered new virtual instructional formats and tools, counselors developed new methods to connect with their students and families, and families and educators forged deeper partnerships in support of student success.”

Additionally, the report says, schools now “have greater access to technology and internet connectivity than ever before.”

Stamford, like many districts, was not immune to the negative effects of COVID-19 as the global pandemic forced education online.

According to data released by the Stamford school district in March, roughly 40 percent of freshmen at the city’s three high schools were not on track for graduation. Among sophomores, that figure was 37 percent.

Historically, Westhill has had the lowest graduation rates among the district’s three public high schools, which includes Stamford High School and the Academy of Information Technology and Engineering. The most recent state data from the 2019-20 school year shows Westhill with a graduation rate of 86.3 percent, compared to 90.8 percent at Stamford High and 98.7 percent at AITE.

“Westhill did a terrific job this year knowing that there were new pressures on students and families,” Pallin said.

Although it was not included in the report, Westhill also implemented an equitable grading pilot program in a handful of classes, a result of a professional development event hosted by the RISE Network focused on the work of Joe Feldman, the author of “Grading for Equity.”

In general terms, Feldman’s book advocates for having grades only reflect a student’s academic performance, not extra elements such as behavior, as well as implementing a grading scale that weighs each grade equally.

ignacio.laguarda@stamfordadvocate.com